Cancer has become the leading cause of death among Hispanics, overtaking heart disease, according to a report released today by  the American Cancer Society.

The somber statistical study included some good news: Cancer death rates are declining among Hispanics. Still, researchers caution that as the currently very young Latino population ages and each successive generation assimilates and adopts and Americanized diet and lifestyle, with higher fat and less physical activity, the trend may reverse.

“The implication for future higher rates of cancers is there because of obesity,” explained Rebecca Siegel epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society who co-authored the paper.

The implication for future higher rates of cancers is there because of obesity

- Rebecca Siegel epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society

Immigration seems to have a high impact on health as cancer death rates are 22 percent higher among Hispanics born in the US than those born elsewhere. More than 33,000 Latinos will die from cancer in 2012 and about 112,800 will be diagnosed with some form of it, researchers of the report projected.  Among Hispanic men, cancers of the lung, colorectal region and and liver are the leading causes of cancer death. They will be diagnosed most commonly with prostate cancer. 

For Latinas, breast cancer is the primary cause of death (and also the most commonly diagnosed), followed by lung and colorectal cancers.

Some cancers are surprisingly high in the Hispanic population. Stomach cancer, for example, is very rare in the U.S. and can be linked to a bacteria found in developing countries where living situations are crowded and unsanitary. Rates of this cancer are very high among immigrants from Mexico, in particular. In the Latino population, it is significantly more prevalent in the Hispanic population than white population -- two times higher -- and is one of the top 10 causes of cancer deaths among Latinos.

Childhood cancer was more prevalent in the Hispanic population than the general U.S. population. In 2012, about 2 percent of the cancer cases in the total Hispanic population will come from children age 14 and younger. But for the U.S. population, those cases will make up less than 1 percent. Authors of the study attribute the striking difference to the youth of the Hispanic population -- where the median age is 27, as opposed to the white population where the median age is 42.

Though the study showed a decline in rates of cancer overall, researchers are concerned that lower rates of cancer screening that would allow cancer to be identified and treated earlier may result in a future uptick. Hispanics were screened less for colorectal cancer than whites and Mexican women had the lowest levels of mammogram (a test for breast cancer) and Pap test (a test for cervical cancer).

Limited access to health care may be one reason why screening is so low, said Siegel. Without proper health care administration and guidance, cancers that can be prevented won’t.

“Cervical cancer is 50 to 70 percent higher in Hispanics and we do have the tools to eliminate it but we can’t do that if we can’t get these girls vaccinated,” said Siegel. 

She added that  three doses are required to complete the cervical cancer vaccine but few girls complete it, possibly because of cost and health care accessibility.

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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